For all that we focus on food in this country — whether it’s Michelle Obama’s crusade to improve the public school lunch program or the new and improved recommendations on salt intake — we devote very little attention to the actual enjoyment of eating.
Last week I indulged in a Speedy Meal — some boxed, frozen creation that was supposed to taste like chicken — and stamped all over the plastic wrap encasing the fowl imitation contents were Fun Facts about families eating dinner together:
“Children who eat dinner with their families get better grades in school.”
“Children who eat regular family meals exhibit fewer symptoms of clinical depression.”
“Children LIKE eating Tasty Bird casseroles, around the dinner table with their families.”
While I question conclusion number 3, I find it amazing that something so common a generation ago — that is, eating dinner together as a family, around a table and not over the kitchen sink — is such a novel concept that we require full page newspaper ads, admonitions from the First Lady, and chirpy, printed advice from frozen boxed food-product manufacturers, to drive into our brains what common sense never should have let go of in the first place.
Granted, we’re having issues these days about the definition of “family,” but are we really so incapable of setting aside a dedicated time, and a tranquil location, to eat?
Last night, the four of us were gathered around a meal of, mercifully, real food when the topic of table manners came up. (This is another plus about eating together: you talk.)
Now as all of you with mothers know, the maternal instinct is hardwired to instill manners in our progeny — by example, by non-stop reminding, by force if necessary — and my personal preference is to set before my charges the image of a state dinner at the White House, prefacing each example with,
“If you were eating a meal with the president . . .
“. . . would you seriously lick the jam off of your butter knife?
“. . . would you truly make that noise in public?
“. . . would you impale baby carrots on your canine teeth and pretend to be a rabbit?”
What is particularly concerning about these examples is that none of my progeny is under the age of 14.
After he swallowed what he was chewing, the Son and Heir recalled a social groupie thing that involved a half-dozen captive boys sitting around a table, being guided in how to behave by male instructors. Much was said about how to cut one’s meat (not with the hands), where to blow one’s nose (not at the table), and what to do with one’s free hand (not on the girl’s thigh).
We agreed that table manners — which take up chapters in the etiquette books — are best and easily learned around a table, and while some people may differ about which fork to use or how to properly fold and re-fold one’s napkin, reasonable dining etiquette can be summed up succinctly:
1) Don’t chew with your mouth open or make smacking, moist noises as you chew,
2) Don’t do anything repulsive.
In the same way that Jesus distilled all the commandments in the Pentateuch and subsequent auxiliary references to two, Emily Post can be reduced to a manageable level that the majority of us can understand — biting off just as much as we can chew, so to speak.
We don’t watch much television in this household — and never during meals, by the way — but College Girl introduced us to Blue Bloods, a New York City police show starring Tom Selleck as the police commissioner patriarch of a family of law enforcement agents — eldest son Danny is an undercover detective; daughter Erin with the district attorney’s office; youngest son Jamie a cop on the beat; father Henry the retired police commissioner.
In addition to solid story lines, superb acting, and a willingness to look at more than one side of an issue, Blue Bloods shows the principal family eating — chewing, swallowing, licking, tasting, drinking (think of it — have you ever seen James Bond eat — ever?) — in a weekly Sunday dinner around a large wooden table. One week it was Chinese takeout, another pizza, but frequently it’s a roast or a ham or a casserole along with wine for the adults and milk for the kids.
And everybody talks.
Admittedly, this family’s meal conversation gets a bit heated as the siblings argue over that week’s drug dealer or serial rapist or Russian mob boss — and Selleck’s Francis reins in when things get out of control (“What’s a call girl, Mom?” one of the grandsons asks), but the key element is that this is a family, and this family stays connected by breaking bread with one another.
What you eat, and where and how you eat it — these are important issues — and bi-partisan.
Michelle Obama and Tom Selleck can agree on that.